An Interview with Tom Watkins: Historical Antecedents?

Michael F. Shaughnessy – There has been quite a bit in the news of late that some refer to as “teacher-bashing.” Other say they support great teachers but are angry and fed up with the unions that represent them, that put adult needs ahead of children.

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

Tom Watkins, Michigan’s former State Superintendent of Schools and former President and CEO of the Palm Beach County, Florida Economic Council (a private business organization comprised of the communities top business leaders) brings to the conversation a rich and diverse experience in K-12 leadership and innovation, higher education, high quality preschool advocacy, and a background in business, media, government, politics and global issues that is unique in the public school arena.

Traditionally, school superintendents spend their entire career in public schools or in a “non-traditional” field such as business or the military. Tom Watkins may be the first “hybrid” leader, with experience in a multitude of fields that includes both teaching and learning.

Tom currently is a business and educational consultant in the U.S. and China. He can be reached at:

Here, he weighs in on a number of issues:

1) Now, educationally, much is going on in Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio. We all know about the budget crisis, but is dismantling the unions the answer?

No. As the old saying goes, “It takes two to tango.” The labor agreements that were negotiated with Labor AND management need to be re examined and perhaps re-negotiated.

Michigan’s Governor Snyder understands we have to work with the workers and the unions that represent them in this state to address the budget crisis. He has publically rejected the Wisconsin approach as counterproductive and divisive.

He understands management has a responsibility to work with labor to fix this fiscal unsustainable costs associated with operating our schools.

By the way, Governor Snyder is no flaming liberal Democrat. He is a Republican and former CEO of Gateway Computers who has taken tough action in the past to address bottom line issues.

There has been quite a bit in the news of late that some refer to as “teacher-bashing.” Other say they support great teachers but are angry and fed up with the unions that represent them, that put adult needs ahead of children.

Regardless, change needs to come to public education.

When I State Superintendent, I wrote in a 2004 report, “Structural Issues Facing Michigan Schools in the 21st Century,”

( that rising health care and pension costs for educators were unsustainable. Any new resources dedicated to learning have been absorbed by these costs for years. Attempting to reign in costs and to bring them in line with private sector benefits is not “anti-teacher” — it is fiscal responsibility.

Currently there is no constituency to raise taxes — period. Certainly there is little support to maintain benefits in the public sector that the majority of taxpayers do not have.

Michigan’s Gov. Snyder understands he must address this issue and that without significant reform in these areas, there will never be enough resources available to educate our kids.

Teachers and other public employees did not create the fiscal crisis in our states and federal government. Yet, there is a serious problem. In a recent editorial, The New York Times noted that “New York State is paying 10 times more for state employees’ pensions than it did just a decade ago. Health care spikes have been as high if not higher. In a declining economy this is simply unsustainable.

Going against the grain to enact sensible reforms is absolutely necessary. To continue to spend and spend while blaming and complaining is not going to solve real problems facing our nation, states or schools.

No, it is not just conservative Republicans going after teachers or public workers. Liberal Democrats like New York’s Cuomo and California’s Governor Jerry Brown are also looking at union concessions. Reality crosses party lines.

Stating facts is not anti-teacher or anti-union. As adults we must find sensible ways to address the legitimate needs of employees, taxpayers and, most importantly, our children. They will not get a lifetime pass in the global job market simply because they came of age during these tough times.

In Wisconsin, the public employees unions have already agreed to substantial and necessary cuts to their pensions and health care benefits. Cuts that many in the private sector have absorbed over the last decade.

I have worked with many labor leaders who, while standing up for their members, remain realistic and we have been able to find sensible compromises to accomplish the goals at hand. One such leader is David Hecker, President of the Michigan Federation of Teachers, an AFL-CIO affiliate.

Similar efforts are playing out across the nation as states strain to balance budgets and struggle to provide quality education.

Yet at the end of the day, when the political rhetoric from the left and right fades, it is a quality teacher — one who knows the subject matter and has a passion for teaching and learning — who makes a difference in our collective future.

Political rhetoric has never educated a single child.

I believe Michigan’s Governor Snyder has taken the right approach to this very tough issue.

2) Tom, you were in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China in May, 1989 when nearly a million students protested, calling for freedom, democracy and an end to corruption. What parallels does this have to what is going on today?

Nearly 22 years ago, I stood in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square with hundreds of thousands of students and ordinary Chinese citizens as they, too, called for an end to corruption and for greater freedom and democracy in their country.

Like the rest of the nation, today I watch as protesting Tunisians, Egyptians and now the Libyans call for the ouster of their “leaders”.

Marching for freedom and democracy is exhilarating, a model for all oppressed people.

The revolution is being Twitterized.

The Chinese have a saying: “Once you open the window, all the flies can come in.” As the world watches and hears what has transpired in the Middle East and Africa, we can expect more “flies” to enter other countries that oppress its people.

At both the citizen and governmental level, we Americans we must stand with the  people as they work toward democracy – not stand in their way.

Are there risks? Of course! Our long time ally, Israel, surely does not need any further chaos and uncertainty along their borders. The price of oil is rising and the stock market may tank as the world responds to this new normal. There are jitters around the globe that what started in Tunisia, Egypt and now exploding in Libya – the domino effect in both Arab and non-Arab countries alike, portends a potential drag on our sputtering world economy.

Gas prices are surging.

This may be the price for freedom and democracy for the Egyptian people.

It is indeed ironic that Tahrir Square, where the eyes of the world are focused, is also called Liberation Square.

As I watch the chaos unfold, it brings back memories of the giddy mood in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and I am reminded of the Chinese student asking me to “Describe democracy. Describe freedom?” Not long afterwards, acting on the orders of Deng Xiaoping, the People’s Liberation Army did the unthinkable – they opened fire on and crushed their own Chinese people.

In the days leading up to the ultimate massacre on June 4, that symbol of American freedom and democracy, the “Goddess of Democracy” statue was hoisted in Tiananmen Square, manifesting for all the world to see, as the students erected.

Leaders who oppress their citizens even as they live in high luxury, may not sleep peacefully tonight or for many nights to come. Let’s hope for a much better outcome for the Libyan people than what the Chinese experienced in Tiananmen Square nearly 22 years ago.

Freedom and democracy – “when you open the window, all the flies can come in.”

3) In your career you have been a staunch supporter of quality public schools (both traditional, charter and e-learning) and teachers. Share your beliefs with our readers.

Research is clear: To have a quality school– teachers matter. Perhaps the most effective reform strategy today is investing in quality teachers.

As Michigan’s State Superintendent of Schools, I wrote a small book, “They Help Us Paint Rainbows,” generously underwritten by Strategic Staffing Solutions and distributed free to tens of thousands of Michigan teachers. While it was not the raise that great teachers deserve, it was a small token of thanks.

When I traveled the state visiting classrooms, I always asked, “What makes your teacher great?” Sometimes the students’ initial responses were flip and funny. But after some reflection, they became serious, thoughtful, even profound.

The title of the book came from a kindergarten girl who responded, in an excited voice, “They help us paint rainbows!”. How delightfully profound and simply philosophical.

Then my eyes followed the child’s pointing finger, I turned and saw 25 hand-drawn rainbows proudly displayed on the wall. So concrete, so literal.  Our schools must become more about teaching, learning and children and less about power, control, politics and adults.

Tough budget choices need to be made. Perpetuating the status quo is no longer an option.

The promise of our collective future is sitting in our classrooms today.

The quality of our lives, the strength of our economy, the vibrancy of our democracy and our place in the world all depend on the quality of our classroom teachers.

Clearly, we must manage our public resources in a way that allows us to do good — and do it efficiently, effectively and well.

If we are to compete on the global stage, denying reality and pretending and spending must end.

4) In your mind, are there differences between teachers unions, firemen/firewomen and sanitation workers unions?

We need to celebrate the public workforce everywhere. To vilify, denigrate and disparage public/government workers is simply uncalled for and counterproductive.

Having said that, management has a remember that we have a responsibility not simply to tax and spend, but to get value for the citizens/taxpayers. We have to change the paradigm from one of simply spending more to asking what value are we obtaining from the investment we are making.

Our schools must exist for teaching, learning and children — not power, control, politics and adults. As we move forward in public education we must treat teachers and other educators as the professionals they are and ask that they work with management to manage the fiscal reality.

5) Back to China, What is this “Jasmine” thing I keep hearing so much about in China?

The Chinese authorities monitor the Internet for any threat of a popular revolt or conversations that would challenge “social stability” as a threat to their remaining in power.

“Jasmine”, used as a means to circumvent attention, now blocked by the Chinese Internet police, is a favorite Chinese folk song embraced by past and current Chinese leaders.

This is reminiscent of George Orwell’s famous “1984″ book, in which the main character has a dialogue with the government officials who are torturing him trying to make him say two plus two equal five, while realizing that “freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

As Mao once proclaimed and Chinese leaders know, “A single spark can start a raging forest fire.” Two plus two does indeed equal four.

There are rumblings of a “Jasmine Revolution” gaining traction in China. Yet, the Chinese authorities are detaining any known or suspected activists to maintain control.

6) China has many more people, and there seems to be a period of relative quiet now, as their economy is good. What could happen if their economy becomes problematic?

Chinese rulers’ greatest fear is losing control. When the ‘mandate from heaven’ is lost, the people rise up. The revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have the Chinese leadership losing sleep.

When the Tiananmen Square students protested in 1989 – nearly a million strong – their calls were answered on June 4th when the People’s Liberation Army, with orders from the top, turned on them, killing thousands. The brutality put an end to protesters’ ideals, dreams and aspirations.

Since then, China’s leaders have kept up with the pulse of the Chinese people. There has been unwritten trade-offs between the Communist Party and the Chinese people, simply: “The people’s lives continue to prosper economically and the Communist Party continues its rule.”

As the paramount leader following Mao, Deng Xiaoping remarked, “To get rich is glorious.” He also understood, with a population of 1.3 billion and nearly 800 million living on poverty wages of $2 dollars a day,that not everyone in China is getting rich at the same time.

Like the Mideast, China’s embers are capable of combustion. Growing economic inequities, wide ranging corruption, rising food prices, inflation, a massive housing bubble and a government that has demonstrated it will go to any length to maintain control.

Yet, the Chinese leaders have something my grandmother had, but which Tunisia, Egypt and Libya do not: A hand on the pressure cooker that allows the pressure and steam to escape. Moving 400 million people out of abject poverty over the last 30 years goes a long way to building stability and letting off steam.

An iron fist and a response to people’s basic economic needs is the formula that has thus far kept China from being added to the list of countries in revolt.

7) China’s educational system is relatively different than Western countries. What do they do differently and how do they assess “success” and progress?

Testing is king. There is a two day national test given that determines what, if any university a student will be able to attend.

This has resulted in a rote educational system that rewards memorization at the expense of creativity and innovation- necessary skills for a fast-paced world based on knowledge and the ability to adapt and change.

I expect as America moves more and more to a standardized model of education driven by testing, that the Chinese will learn from us and adapt their educational system towards digital: e-books, online learning, and seeking ways to help create the next “Bill Gates.”

8) Right now, we are in debt to China. How is this going to impact our policies?

China has become America’s banker and we must get our debt under control. Today, 40 cent on every dollar that our federal government spends is borrowed. A good portion of this borrowing comes from China — a simply unsustainable position to be in and not a prescription for remaining a great nation.

As Mao Tse Tung once said: “A revolution is not a tea party.”

There are only three ways to balance a budget: increase revenues, decrease expenditures or a combination of the two.

We currently have a fundamental disconnect with reality. Under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, we have attempted to have our cake while eating it many times over, cutting taxes while increasing spending, promising entitlements and benefits we are unwilling to support with increased taxes. Not to mention fighting two wars. The reality of this dysfunctional fiscal policy is coming home to roost at the federal and state level.

Simply put: China invests in its country and people while the U.S.

disinvest at home — a 21st century definition of insanity.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

Thanks for the opportunity to contribute. As usual, we have covered a wide array of material in a few questions. China and education continue as dynamic topics of discussion.

Always to happy to hear from your readers. They are free to contact me at:

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March 13th, 2011

Staff Reporter

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